Barely a couple of days after the Supreme Court’s fil order banning liquor vends along tiol and state highways, some states have already begun circumventing the order. States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have already denotified their state highways, which means liquor shops, pubs, bars and restaurants will not have to down shutters. Their excise departments are scurrying to take fresh stock of the situation and help other liquor outlets escape the apex court ban. Take for example, a state like West Bengal where nearly 40 percent of its 5,500 liquor retailers have their outlets along tiol and state highways; one-fifth of the state’s liquor revenue comes from highway shops; as per prelimiry estimates, these outlets are likely to incur losses to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore out of yearly revenue of Rs 4,000 crore. Farther south, Maharashtra is staring at losses at nearly Rs 7,000 crore while Tamil du fears it may lose up to Rs 10,000 crore in revenues from liquor sales. Considering how much Assam sets by store on liquor revenues, similar evasive measures may well be in store, which will be a pity. “Drunk driving is a potent cause of fatalities and injuries in road accidents. The Constitution preserves and protects right to life as an over-arching constitutiol value,” the apex court had said in December last year, when it ordered complete shutdown of liquor shops within 500 metres of highways and directed the governments not to renew licenses from March 31, 2017. This verdict followed a PIL filed by an NGO ‘Arrive Safe’ which said nearly 1.42 lakh people perish annually on Indian roads because of accidents, drunken driving being a major contributor to this high toll. Considering this plea, the Supreme Court is learnt to have referred to a number of government policy documents drawing correlations between alcohol consumption and road accidents, as well as Central circulars issued to State governments advising not to grant new licenses to liquor shops along highways.
Along with Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, a battery of senior advocates appearing for various states and liquor vendors contended that the Supreme Court’s December 15 order was not based on data or research. Arguing that the budget of every state will be badly hit if the SC ban is enforced, Rohatgi contended that tiol highways and state highways cannot be compared, with some towns situated almost entirely along state highways. This will leave liquor vends in such towns nowhere to go if the ‘excessive’ 500 meters restriction is carried out, Rohatgi pointed out. The All Assam Indian Made Foreign Liquors Retailers’ Association too sought modification of the SC verdict, saying it virtually banned all liquor shops in the State ‘as the definition of state highways in the local statute included all roads’. While agreeing to hear the batch of petitions on its order, the SC bench however firmly said: “Rest assured we do not want to be any impediment in your earning revenue. But drunken driving… a person driving is dead and gone. Imagine about his family. Suggest some altertive. We want to balance it.” It had also ordered all state chief secretaries and police heads of every state to decide on a plan after consulting with the excise and municipal authorities. On Friday, the apex court upheld its December 2016 verdict, after relaxing it partially. As per the modified order, the distance from highways for liquor vends has been reduced to 220 metres for small towns with population less than 20,000, states where existing liquor licence permits are valid beyond April 1 can continue to operate till September 30, 2017 (but not beyond), Sikkim and Meghalaya have been exempted from the ban on liquor vends within 500 metres or 220 metres (due to topographical constraints), while the distance in Himachal Pradesh has been reduced to 220 metres. The feeling in various state capitals is that the apex court ban order effectively cuts into the right of state legislatures to regulate liquor trade. But the fact remains that various state governments including that of Assam, have miserably failed to control drunken driving along highways. Nearly 97 percent of road accidents in the country is caused by rash or negligent driving, including drunken driving, with 72 percent of casualties in the 15-44 age group. This is the human price the country is paying on its killer roads. Banishing liquor outlets from the highways is only a small step to reduce this mayhem. Circumventing the apex court order is a big step backward.